The paper approaches and reexamines Protestant Puritanism in terms of political extremism or radicalism. The paper argues and demonstrates Puritanism as an English-American offspring of Calvinism represents political extremism or radicalism, interlinked and mutually reinforced with its moral-religious absolutism. It ‘rediscovers’ Puritanism as an extreme or radical, anti-egalitarian and authoritarian rather than, as widely assumed, moderate, egalitarian and democratic type of politics and ideology, just as relatedly an absolutist morality and religion. It does by exploring Puritanism’s elements and legacies of political extremism or radicalism, including anti-egalitarianism, in historically Puritan societies, especially America and in part Great Britain. The paper explores and places Puritan political and other extremism and anti-egalitarianism within a comparative-historical framework of Western societies and the 16th-21st century. It aims to contribute to the existing sociological and other literature by contributing to a better understanding of Puritanism’s role and legacy in Western societies, primarily America.
The reason an examination of Puritanism and Calvinism is important is because we’re all products of history. Thus our attitudes and public policy are products of history. Each generation has a tendency to question its past, but they are also blessed and burdened with the cultural attitudes, good, bad and in between of the past. No generation pops out fresh and free from the prejudices of its grandparents or even its great great grandparents.
Further, not only being originally intolerant, but Puritanism has also bequeathed a strong and pervasive heritage of political and moral-cultural intolerance especially in America and to a lesser or diminishing extent Great Britain. Thus, sociological studies suggest and evidence that contemporary US politics and society tends to be intolerant primarily due to Puritanism as the main historical source of political and other intolerance in American history, up to the mid and late 20th (Lipset 1955, 1996) and even the early 21st century (Munch 2001). For example, a sociological analysis of post-war US conservatism (specifically, McCarthyism) finds that “one important factor affecting this lack of tolerance in American [politics] is Protestant puritanical morality [e.g.] the propensity to see political life in terms of all black and all white [so] Puritanism is probably one of the main sources of American intolerance” (Lipset 1955:180). Another, corresponding sociological analysis of neo-conservatism in America since the 1980s provides the same finding suggesting that Puritan-Protestant “sectarian bred propensities for crusades and the sectarian stress on personal morality” (Lipset 1996:176) operate as the primary (albeit not the sole) source of intolerance in American politics and society.
If the preceding is correct, it indicates that Cromwell-style crusades against “infidels” and Winthrop et al.’s “Salem with witches” (Putnam 2000:355), far from being what Mannheim calls the “dead past”, continue, even expand and intensify via neo-conservative or fundamentalist culture and violent wars against “un-American” persons and activities in contemporary America (from McCarthyism to Reaganism), thus forced to usher in the 21st century in the almost substantially same way proto-Puritan New England entered the 18th (witch-trials) and the neo-Puritan South the 19th or 20th (another “Great Awakening”, “Monkey Trials”) centuries. It also confirms that American Puritanism’s moral-political radicalism or absolutism, of which intolerance is an observed indicator or symptom, was less than its British parent “tempered” (Munch 2001) by Anglicanism (i.e. Episcopalism) and other moderate Protestantism like Lutheranism (Munch 1981) as well as by Jeffersonian liberalism and secularism (Kloppenberg 1998), reflecting the comparative historical and continuing weakness of these non-Puritan countervailing forces in America, up to the 21st century.
In comparative terms, as expected, US Puritan-inspired political conservatism tends to be more intolerant, aggressive and so radical or extreme in imposing its moral absolutism on the polity and all society than its counterparts, let alone non-Puritan or liberal Protestantism, in Western society. Admittedly, US political-religious conservatives (e.g. Protestant sectarians) tend to be “much more aggressive in imposing their own morality on the body politic [and civil society] than their ideological compeers elsewhere” (Lipset 1996:293). This superior aggressiveness or intolerance in the coercive imposition of typically Puritan-rooted morality can be considered the supreme and the most enduring or persisting the legacy or vestige of Puritanism, specifically its intolerant “Salem with and without witches”, in America, at least American political-religious conservatism in the “Southern Bible Belt” and beyond.